By Nicola Bullard
Past and present were never far away from each other at the Argentina Social Forum and sometimes they collided in such incandescent moments of poignancy and hope that anything seemed possible: even the revolution itself. This is my attempt to describe some of those moments

On the opening day, we gathered at the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the Casa Rosada (the presidential palace) where every Thursday the “madres” – the mothers of the disappeared – gather for “la ronda”, keeping vigil for their sons and daughters, rekindling the memory and the possibility of struggle. Typically for Argentina (as I soon learn) there are two factions of the madres – the “linea fondacion” and the more militant breakaway group. After the end of the dictatorship, the linea fondacion started to use the mechanisms of the human rights commission and the courts to investigate the cases of the disappeared while the “hardline” faction argues that the new government was no different from the dictators – they just didn’t wear uniforms. Almost twenty years later and in the midst of an almost total institutional collapse, the army stayed inside its barracks. It seems there will be no turning back to the 1970s – with or without uniforms – but the project of building economic and political democracy in Argentina is still far from finished.

The “Internationale” is blaring over the loudspeakers and the women – from both factions – are wearing white headscarves over their white hair. The names of their sons and daughters – Ruben Pedro Bonet, Susanna Lesgant, Antonio and Stella — and the day they disappeared are lovingly embroidered in blue silk thread. Blue and white: the colours of Argentina. Today is special. It is 22 August and thirty years exactly since dozens of militants were murdered while attempting to escape from the infamous Trelew prison, an event now known as the Trelew massacre. Men and women carry black and white poster-size photographs of impossibly young boys and girls, with the long fringes and wide shirt collars so popular in the seventies. They would now be in their fifties, but this moment would not exist if they were.

Hundreds, and soon thousands, of others gather in the Plaza and the sunshine in brilliant. The atmosphere is so buoyant and festive that it’s hard to understand why a three-meter fence and heavily armed police are needed to define a 100-meter no-man’s land between us and the Presidential Palace. But, as I am reminded, some of the heaviest fighting of last December took place here and it was here that the people demanded – and got – President de la Rua’s resignation.


Nora Cortinas is possibly one of the most loved women in Argentina. She is tiny, with sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks – everyone’s fantasy grandmother. Her son Carlos Gustavo disappeared more than 25 years ago on 15 May 1977. His name is embroidered on her white scarf. Along with Bolivian indigenous leader (and almost president) Evo Morales, Max Ntanyana of the Durban anti-eviction movement and social movement and trade union leaders from Argentina and across Latin America, Nora and her friends lead us out of the Plaza, carrying the banner of the Argentina Social Forum “Otro Argentina es posible” (almost certainly they mean “necesidad”).

It is a classic march, at least for a while: trade unions, women’s organisations, Jubilee groups and Amnesty International, students, progressive lawyers, the Communist Party. But then the “movimento barrios de pie” (roughly, the movement of neighbourhoods standing up) arrives. Suddenly, everything seemed more real, no longer the Argentina of the movies. My conversation of the day before with a young, middle class student activist now made sense. She had told me how shocked they were when tens of thousands of “piqueteros” (organised unemployed and picketers) and impoverished families from the barrios of Buenos Aires arrived in the centre of Buenos Aires on May Day. She described, with real compassion and amazement at her own sheltered life, the thin, unhealthy people whose clothes and bodies showed all the signs of ravaging poverty. What she didn’t describe, though, was their silence. Dozens of families walking in groups behind the proud banners of the neighbourhood – San Pedro, San Martin, Los Floros, La Boca, Matanza – walking silently through the streets, carrying small children. Sometimes the men walked in tight formation at the front carrying axe handles. This is not the white Argentina we see on television. This is not the sophisticated, cosmopolitan, intellectual image of Buenos Aires. These peoples are the indigenous and the unemployed, poor, forgotten and abandoned by their governments. These are the people Eva Peron picked up in her arms but now there is no Evita, so they are standing up alone.


The statistics now have faces. Seventy per cent of families in the urban areas and in the north of Argentina live in poverty. Of 23.5 million people living in the urban areas, 12.5 million are below the poverty line and 5.8 million are indigent. Argentina’s GDP declined by 16.3 per cent in the first quarter of 2002, official unemployment is 25 per cent and real wages have fallen by almost 20 per cent in the past year. Seven out of ten children are poor. They are dying from hunger and disease and although the supermarkets are stocked with food, families cannot afford to buy the necessities. Argentina is an urban society and the links with the land and with rural life – the “safety net” which saved people from indigence and hunger in Thailand and Indonesia during the financial crash of 1997 – were cut generations ago.

Cristina Civale, a local journalist, puts it simply: “We don’t need a dictatorship any more. They kill people by hunger, not guns.”

As I watched this other world go by, two young men and two young women, one with a two-year-old clinging to her shoulder drinking milk and a toddler playing in the gutter, were picking through garbage. They also stopped to see what was happening.

My translator, Silvia, had told me about the “cartoneras” – the people who survive by picking over the daily garbage of Buenos Aires. Thousands of small family groups work in this tightly organised enterprise. Each day at 5pm the “tren blanco” (there is a special white train for cartoneros because no one else will travel with the garbage pickers) goes from the far edge of Buenos Aires to downtown Retiro. It returns at midnight. It is impossible to sell your scrap paper without the proper coupons. Each family has one or two beaten and bent supermarket trolleys for their bulging bags of paper and although childcare centres have been set up near the train station, it is common to see young children riding in trolleys pushed by their older brothers and sisters.

I wondered what these young “cartoneros” thought about the demonstration: did they see hope in the silent march of the barrios de pie, or were they too busy surviving.


We reached the Plaza Huossey, the centre of the University of Buenos Aires, as the sun set. Throughout the march, the “official” Argentina Social Forum song (written and recorded by activists) carried us forward. It filled the plaza and the plaza filled with people.

The mothers were there of course, and the trade union leaders and they all made moving speeches. But it was the Bolivian coca farmer and almost-president Evo Morales who stole the show. Morales spoke of the coca leaf as the symbol of national unity against the US dollar. He called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) “legalised colonisation” and predicated that Latin America would be Washington’s “second Vietnam.” The Bolivian indigenous movement, campaigning under the bizarre (but honest) name “The Political Instrument for the Peoples Sovereignty” now has 37 deputies in the parliament last and although Morales eventually lost the presidential vote, he believes they are “close to occupying the power, not only the territory.”

The Argentinians loved him, but not nearly as much as the scores of Bolivians jostling to be close to their hero, holding flags and crying freely. There are 300,000 Bolivians living in Buenos Aires and they are called “bolitos” – little balls. They are migrant workers who have no status in this society yet, for one extraordinary moment, their leader and brother, their flag and their struggles were triumphantly filling the night air.


Across from the plaza, in the faculty of economics, another hero of sorts was being mobbed.

Joseph Stiglitz is the darling of the Buenos Aires middle class and his incredible popularity can be measured by the hundreds of people turned away from the lecture hall and the hundreds more – including me – who refused to leave, pushing and crowding into the lecture theatre moments before the Great Man spoke. All the pushing and close body contact was worthwhile, though, because there were three other people sharing my personal space and naturally we started to chat.

Susana is probably 18, a lively student of business. She is blond, blue-eyed and speaks perfect English with an American accent. Lillian also speaks perfect English. She is about 30 and translates medical texts. She is wearing a coat with a fur collar, which I note for two reasons (i) it’s about 35 degrees and she looks perfect and (ii) I’ve just come in from a street march. My third friend also speaks perfect English. Silvia is 40-something and owns a business producing and now exporting “dolce latte” incredibly sweet concentrated milk spread. Her partner is a famous economist who, from time to time, is asked if he’d like to be finance minister. (He’s been saying no so far.)

All are devoted Stiglitz fans and I ask Susanna what she would say if she could ask Stiglitz just one question. Without hesitation, she says “We have a vacancy for an economist. Can you start Monday?” Everyone around us laughs and agrees. Silvia says it would be a “disaster” if the IMF gave Argentina any more money. She is an exporter and the devaluation has been a windfall. But she is lucky because thousands of factories closed before the devaluation and now there is no credit to kick-start the system (something Stiglitz emphasised in his talk).

Lilian, more than the others, is shocked by the collapse of the institutions she trusted: the banks, police, the government. “I worked hard, I did nothing wrong, and I lost all my savings in the Scotia Bank,” she says. There is a sense of moral outrage – we believed in them and this is what happened. She wants to leave Argentina and asks whether there is work for translators in Australia. Silvia is less bitter and less na๏ve and even calls 6 January (the day of the devaluation) Argentina’s “11 September”.

“We could see it coming,” she says, “ but no-one was willing to make the hard decisions. We were living in a dream.”

Stiglitz was worth the wait. He said useful things about debt, recalling the Drago Doctrine, written by the Argentina finance minister in 1902 when creditors occupied Egypt and Mexico with their armies. “Economic pressure,” said Stiglitz, “can be equally oppressive and no less deadly.” He spoke of the equal importance of financial contracts and social contracts, of odious debt and dictators (all without mentioning Argentina).

He was particularly hard on the creditors, saying they lend too much, they make mistakes, they have no incentives for due diligence and they push the risk onto the debtor. Debt, especially foreign debt, he said, is highly risky and the market has no way to ensure a good outcome. What’s more, capital account liberalisation is counterproductive to economic growth: all risk and no reward. “When you’re negotiating a loan,” he remarked, ” the question is not how much money you’re going to be getting but rather how much you’re going to be sending up North.”

But when it came to the “what to do” part, Stiglitz was weak and his main proposal was
more credit for all sectors but especially the trade export sector — hardly the flash of insight many had expected. For Silvia it’s common sense, but it won’t get Lilian’s money back. It might even mean jobs for the piqueteros and the barrios de pie but, yet again, they are jobs tied to the fickle, competitive and volatile export market. Stiglitz was great on debt and there was plenty of good ammunition in support of debt cancellation but on the long-term project of equitable and sustainable economic development, his arsenal is limited. He’ll never get to be the Keynes of neo-liberalism this way.

On 24 September, Argentina announced that it will not be using its dwindling foreign reserves to repay IMF and other multilateral loans. Negotiations with the IMF are progressing slowly and the Argentina government is caught between the rock of social and political chaos and the hard place of the IMF. According to the current finance minister Roberto Lavagna, “there are two priorities which we will not abandon. We will maintain social programs and ensure the financing of provincial economies.” Wisely, even if too late, the government is finally putting the people first.


One person who would like a new line of credit is Celia. We met on Saturday morning at Bruckman, the factory she and 55 other women took over in December last year. They were in the middle of a pay dispute and the union proposed bankruptcy. But the women disagreed, splitting with the unions and starting their own negotiations. The owner agreed to meet them after lunch on the 19 December (while the rest of Buenos Aires was in flames). When they arrived, the lights were off, the offices had been cleared and factory was empty. The caretaker gave them the keys and walked away. Since then, Celia and her colleagues have been making suits and filling orders. They paid the owner’s electricity bills and they now earn 400 pesos a month – very little but better than the alternative. On the lunchroom wall there is a schedule of doctor’s visiting times (before, they had no health care) and a notice of a women’s meeting for “autonomia, autoconvicado, autofinanciado, pluralista, democratica y horisontal”. In any language, the meaning is clear.

Celia – who says she has “always been a fighter” – has four children and the youngest is still living at home. She started working outside her home 10 years ago and before that her struggle was “inside the house.” She tells us about the day in March when police arrived at the factory dressed as buyers. They entered the building but the workers were able to “regain” the factory within three hours, backed by thousands of students, the local community and piqueteros who arrived at the scene to defend the workers.

Although there are still orders for expensive European-label suits, the women would rather be doing “social production” for schools and for hospitals. However, they cannot tender for government contracts because they are not a registered workers cooperative. Celia and her colleagues do not want this: they want to work in a different way and there are about 80 factories in Buenos Aires and other provincial towns where the workers feel the same. They are trying to be worker-run social, economic and political collectives, not government sanctioned capitalist co-operatives. The worker factories are an important new element in Argentina’s political landscape and they are building a national process and organisation, but Celia is cautious and intuitive. “We are working from the base,” she says, “and we don’t want to be caught by the nose by the piqueteros who are seven years ahead of us.”


On the final day of the social forum, the tireless Nora Cortinas is speaking in the vast auditorium of the medical school of the University of Buenos Aires, where the seats are steeply pitched like a Victorian opera house. She is calling out the names of the disappeared sons and daughters of the 1970s and, although half of the people in the hall were not even born when her son Carlos Gustavo disappeared, they all know the ritual. “Presente” they shout, after each name. Just minutes before, another speaker called the names of two new heroes of the struggle, Maximiliano Kosteki and Dario Santillan, the piqueteros killed during violent clashes with riot police on the outskirts of Buenos Aires on 26 June. Their names are greeted with five minutes of standing applause.

In the space of minutes, thirty years are simultaneously swept aside and remembered. History collapses on itself and Argentina has new generation of martyrs and heroes. (At least 27 people died during the protests in December last year.)

Here, on the final day of the Argentina Social Forum, a new kind of politics is being born: one which unites thirty years of struggle into a single slogan “que se vayan todos” – let them all go. This is the slogan of the December uprising when the mass protests of the middle class joined the mass protests of the workers and the unemployed, sweeping away four presidents and putting all the rest on notice. The slogan still resonates (although by now many in the rapidly contracting middle class would perhaps prefer the less wrenching Stiglitz solution).

The Argentina Social Forum was brilliant. It brought together most of the factions and micro-factions of the Argentine left – a left fragmented by dictators and the systematic murder of 30,000 women and men, but also by intellectualism and sectarianism.

More importantly, the Forum brought together many of the new social formations, such as the local asambleia, the piqueteros, the worker-managed factories and the barrios de pie. This is what’s most exciting, interesting and hopeful in Argentina and it’s what makes you believe that Argentina just might overcome its history of bad politics and bad economics. Perhaps it can liberate itself from the burden of Argentine exceptionalism and build a future grounded in Latin American solidarity while the call of the December “revolution” — que se vayan todos — still resonates and still unites.

* Nicola Bullard works with Focus on the Global South in Thailand.